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Lawrence, Thomas Edward [known as Lawrence of Arabia]free

(1888–1935)
  • Lawrence James

Thomas Edward Lawrence [Lawrence of Arabia] (1888–1935)

by Augustus John, 1919

© courtesy the Artist's Estate / Bridgeman Art Library; photograph Tate, London

Lawrence, Thomas Edward [known as Lawrence of Arabia] (1888–1935), intelligence officer and author, was born on 16 August 1888 at Woodlands, Tremadoc, Caernarvonshire, the second of the five sons of Thomas Robert Tighe Chapman (1846–1919), an Anglo-Irish landowner, and his mistress, Sarah Junner (1861–1959). The couple had assumed the name Lawrence after the birth of their first child, Robert, in 1885 and were known as Mr and Mrs Lawrence for the rest of their lives.

Background and upbringing, 1888–1914

Thomas Chapman of South Hill, near Delvin, co. Westmeath, was already married when he began his liaison with Sarah Junner, who was governess to his four daughters. After making a financial settlement on his first family he and Sarah began a peripatetic existence, living successively at Tremadoc, Kirkcudbright, Dinard in Brittany, Langley in Hampshire, and Oxford, where they settled at 2 Polstead Road in 1896. In 1914 Chapman inherited the family baronetcy, but never used the title, which became extinct on his death.

In later years Lawrence liked to present himself as a child brought up in straitened circumstances and engaged in intermittent tussles with his mother. These rows reached such a pitch that he ran away and enlisted in 1905, or so he claimed. No record of his army service or of his father's buying him out has been discovered. Mr Lawrence had sufficient income to provide his family with domestic servants and all the comforts commonly enjoyed by the Edwardian bourgeoisie. He and Mrs Lawrence were deeply pious, she with strong evangelical inclinations which made her hope that her sons might follow vocations in the service of God and mankind. She was a strong-minded woman and Thomas (Ned to the family) was a wilful child who, at the age of about ten, had uncovered the truth of his parents' liaison and his own and his brothers' illegitimacy. He kept this knowledge to himself although, as he matured, it may well have coloured his attitude towards his parents' religious enthusiasms and severe moral code.

The tension was in part resolved by the Lawrences' agreeing to build Ned a well-provided bungalow at the bottom of the garden in 1908. Here he could study and follow his idiosyncratic daily regime undisturbed. By this date it was clear that Ned was a scholar: he had passed successfully through Oxford high school (1896–1907) and gained a Meyricke exhibition to read modern history at Jesus College. The young Lawrence had developed a taste for archaeology and chivalry. He was an enthusiastic and accomplished brass rubber, knowledgeable in arcane matters of armour, costume, and heraldry, and an avid reader of medieval romances. Just over 5 feet 5 inches tall and small-boned, Ned undertook rigorous exercise which, he liked to boast, turned him into a pocket Hercules. He was a good distance runner, but disliked team games.

His parents indulged his passions. In the summers of 1907 and 1908 they provided the wherewithal for him to undertake extended bicycle tours of France in search of castles which he measured and photographed. His interest in medieval military architecture impelled him towards the crusades and in summer 1909 he proceeded through Lebanon and Syria recording the still little known castles there. His findings formed the basis of a BA dissertation which substantially contributed to his first in July 1910. During all his excursions he wrote home regularly with vivid impressions of what he had seen. These letters are not only evidence of his powers of description, but of the warm affection which existed within his family. Past tensions had evaporated, not least because Lawrence had secured the freedom to live on his own terms and pursue his own interests.

Before graduating Lawrence came to the attention of Dr D. G. Hogarth, keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, who had encouraged his antiquarian pursuits. Through Hogarth's patronage Lawrence secured an award from Magdalen College and a position on the British Museum's excavations at Carchemish in Syria. He worked there between 1911 and early 1914. As well as supervising the uncovering and cataloguing of Hittite artefacts Lawrence became immersed in the life of a turbulent region. According to his letters home he acted as a sort of consul, arbitrating disputes among Arabs and Kurds and threw himself into their intermittent squabbles with German engineers, then supervising the construction of the Berlin to Baghdad railway. As well as playing the Hentyesque Englishman, Lawrence cultivated an intimate friendship with an Arab youth, Dahoum, whose natural intelligence impressed him and qualified him for tutelage. Lawrence's enchantment with Dahoum helped convince him of the Arabs' capacity for regeneration, but on their own terms and without repudiating their traditions and culture. What he had seen in Lebanon made Lawrence hostile towards those Arabs who looked to the West for salvation and absorbed European, particularly French, values. Likewise, he despised the far-reaching modernizing projects of the Young Turks, who then controlled the Ottoman empire, a contempt which developed into a passionate loathing during the war. For him, Dahoum represented the simple purity of the Arab at ease with his surroundings and culture.

In 1912 Lawrence had told his family: 'I don't think anyone who tasted the East as I have would give it up half-way, for a seat at high table and a chair in the Bodleian' (M. R. Lawrence, 232). Not that he would have either the chance of a conventional academic career or of fulfilling his wish to continue digging at Carcemish in 1914. He did return in December, but to Cairo as a subaltern attached to the military intelligence department of the Egyptian expeditionary force.

Military service, 1914–1919

Lawrence brought with him a knowledge of the Arab language and world based upon experience. It had also shaped his political outlook which was deeply conservative: he wanted the Arabs to secure independence without losing their historic identity and traditions. From December 1914 to October 1918 Lawrence was intimately involved in collecting and assessing intelligence and in shaping strategy and policy in the Middle East. His academic training fitted him for tasks which he performed diligently and well. As an intellectual he had opportunities to promote his private convictions, particularly on the post-war political future of the Middle East. His sympathies made him susceptible to a Francophobic circle in Cairo, which included his own commanding officer, Colonel Gilbert Clayton, Sir Henry McMahon, and Sir Reginald Wingate, whose objective was to limit as far possible the extension of French power in the region.

Lawrence hoped that his and his colleagues' intrigues would 'biff the French out of all hope of Syria', where they expected post-war territorial and political concessions (Letters of T. E. Lawrence, 1938, 196). This urge to frustrate French ambitions animated Lawrence from November 1916 onwards when he was attached to Hejazi forces and co-operating with the Arab bureau. This section, created in January 1916, was suspected of manipulating Arab nationalism to frustrate French imperial ambitions. Like his associates Lawrence tended to take a myopic, Middle East focused view of the war and was willing to pursue policies at odds with those of the British government, which was obliged to accommodate the wishes of its ally.

Before the spring of 1916 Lawrence undertook routine, largely desk-bound duties. He was an apt and hard-working officer, untidy in appearance but noted for his quick-wittedness and Puckish charm. Like him, his colleagues were amateur soldiers, in khaki because of their specialized knowledge of local conditions and languages. The two MPs George Lloyd and Aubrey Herbert, and also Ronald Storrs, became his friends. Herbert accompanied Lawrence on a mission to Mesopotamia in April 1916 to assist in negotiations to deliver and possibly ransom the army besieged in Kut. Both were appalled by the incompetence of the Anglo-Indian army staff and Lawrence compiled a disparaging assessment of its intelligence section which was forwarded to the War Office, adding no doubt to the general impression of a campaign which was being grossly mishandled. While in Mesopotamia, Lawrence also discovered the extent of the Indian government's opposition to British backing for Arab nationalism. Cairo's schemes ran counter to Delhi's proposals for planting Indian colonists in Mesopotamia. None the less, there was some satisfaction in India when Sharif Hussein of Hejaz rebelled in June 1916. He had, as it were, drawn Mecca into the allied orbit and his stature as a religious figurehead weakened the force of Turco-German pan-Islamic propaganda.

Lawrence had taken part in the preliminary planning of the Arab uprising and, in October 1916, was ordered to Jiddah to assess the military situation. What followed is recorded in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a personal, emotional narrative of the Arab revolt in which Lawrence reveals how by sheer willpower he made history. It was a testimony to his vision and persistence and a fulfilment of his desire to write an epic which might stand comparison in scale and linguistic elegance with his beloved Morte d'Arthur and C. M. Doughty's Arabia deserta. Subtitled 'A triumph', its climax is the Arab liberation of Damascus, a victory which successfully concludes a gruelling campaign and vindicates Lawrence's faith in the Arabs. In a way Seven Pillars is a sort of Pilgrim's Progress, with Lawrence as Christian, a figure sustained by his faith in the Arabs, successively overcoming physical and moral obstacles.

Whether style mattered more to Lawrence than content is still a matter of contention; what is not is that the book endowed the Arab revolt and its mentor with heroic qualities. As a record of war and politics it is neither a distortion nor a repository of dispassionate historical truth. Much of what Lawrence set down has been upheld by contemporary documents. Nevertheless there are areas, most notably his version of the fall of Damascus, in which Lawrence the creative artist prevails over Lawrence the chronicler. Sir Cyril Falls, who possessed a detailed overview of the Middle Eastern front and admired Lawrence as a 'genius' warned that his version of events needed to be 'treated with caution, since he occasionally exaggerated without shame or scruple' (Falls, 8).

In October 1916 the Arab insurgents were wobbling. The Turks still occupied Medina, had the strategic initiative and superior troops and weaponry, and Arab morale was flagging. Lawrence met their leaders, of whom the emir Feisal impressed him most; according to Seven Pillars he injected them with hope and an ambitious goal, Damascus. His official report was thorough, well argued, and optimistic, in so far as Lawrence suggested that the Arab movement had enormous potential. He ruled out the landing of British troops, which pleased the chief of general staff, Sir William Robertson, who feared 'a most costly and useless expedition' which would divert manpower needed in France (TNA: PRO, CAB 45/80, Robertson to Sir James Edmonds, 29 Dec 1925). Lawrence had the knack of saying what his superiors wanted to hear and at the same time was able to demonstrate how Arab forces might be used to the best effect and in support of the overall British regional strategy. In 1917 this centred on an advance across Sinai towards the Holy Land with Jerusalem as the final goal. From November 1916 onwards Lawrence was permanently attached to Feisal's forces as a liaison officer, advising on strategy and supervising among other things the procurement of arms and delivery of Treasury subsidies. At times he was a prickly subordinate who disliked contradiction. What mattered was that his patience and sensitivity to Arab feelings won him respect and affection. 'He found himself in a new environment, among people not accustomed to certain systems and procedures', Feisal observed, 'and he adapted himself, assisted by his intellect. Many other Europeans were not so' (Mousa, Arab sources, 167).

The turning point in both the revolt and Lawrence's career was his coup de main against 'Aqabah on 17 June 1917. It came at the close of an arduous and dangerous reconnaissance trip in which Lawrence had proceeded northwards, possibly as far as Damascus, to discover whether various tribal chiefs would throw in their lot with the allies. Then, and in subsequent discussions with potential defectors, Lawrence may have promised more than his government could deliver. During the final advance in September 1918 some Syrians said they had expected to see British troops the previous year (TNA: PRO, CAB 45/80, Major G. White to Sir James Edmonds). Lawrence was, however, able to persuade his superiors that they had been wrong to underrate the Arab fighting spirit. Between 23 and 24 June he co-ordinated and led a series of attacks by tribal irregulars which overran 'Aqabah's outposts and compelled the garrison to surrender. It was a masterstroke which solved several strategic and political problems: the French had been contemplating occupying the port independently, the navy wanted it eliminated as a base for minelaying, and it provided the Arabs with a convenient base for raids against a Damascus–Medina railway, 100 miles away.

What Robertson called 'an adventurous and successful' foray made Lawrence's reputation as a resourceful and daring commander. The new commander-in-chief of the expeditionary force, Sir Edmund Allenby, judged Lawrence as 'a very fine soldier' and the 'best man for the job' (Durham University Library, Sudan Archive, Wingate papers, 146/1, p. 7). Allenby was impressed by his plans for the future of Arab revolt. Feisal's tribal forces and units of the growing Hejazi regular army, supported by allied specialist and technical units, including British aircraft, armoured cars, and a French mountain battery, would tie down local Turkish forces through sorties against the Damascus–Medina railway. Allenby's South African experience had taught him the corrosive effect of guerrilla warfare and he welcomed an operation that required tiny numbers of British troops and provided an invaluable diversion for his forthcoming offensive.

Lawrence established a warm personal and professional rapport with the volatile Bull Allenby based upon shared interests in archaeology and natural history. A practical soldier, Allenby appreciated a clear-headed officer who delivered what was needed. Lawrence's intrigues at Damascus in October 1918 and his post-war career made the general revise his opinions. He once remarked: 'I had a dozen chaps who could have done the job better' (King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., Edmonds papers, III, 2, 15; Barrow, 215). After Lawrence's death Allenby did, however, deliver a glowing tribute on the BBC.

Between the summer of 1917 and the occupation of Damascus, Lawrence was preoccupied with the planning and conduct of Arab–allied operations based on 'Aqabah, largely against the Hejaz railway and Turkish units based on Maءan and Amman. His energy was as enormous as his forbearance. Each was needed handling the tribesmen, who tended to flinch whenever they faced Turkish regulars, and British and French officers who undervalued the tribal forces and wanted irregular operations to be undertaken according to the rule book. Tempers were sometimes frayed and afterwards Lawrence frequently condemned the inflexibility of the regular officer's mind. He also—and this made him enemies, particularly among the Australians—underplayed the part played by British, dominion, and Indian forces in the campaigns of 1917–18.

In November 1917 Lawrence led a raiding party in southern Syria to harry Turkish communications and, he confided to George Lloyd, to stir up local opposition to France. Disguised as a Circassian and in search of topographical intelligence, he was captured in Deraa and identified by a Turkish officer. Lawrence then suffered homosexual rape and a flogging before making his escape. His story, first related in 1919, has been accepted by some biographers and rejected by others on extensive circumstantial grounds. Whatever did or did not happen, Lawrence lost none of his rashness: in April 1918 he disguised himself as a woman during a brief reconnaissance into the garrison town of Amman (Seven Pillars, 527).

During the first half of 1918 forces based on 'Aqabah maintained pressure on the Damascus–Medina railway through demolition raids which hindered Turkish communications by derailing trains and damaging track, but did not fracture the line permanently. Nor did the Turkish force in Medina suffer unduly; it surrendered only in January 1919. In January 1918 Lawrence was awarded the DSO for his masterful direction and command of Arab forces in an encounter at Tafilah. In September a substantial Arab column—well supported by Arab, British, and Egyptian regular units—was earmarked for a diversionary role on the eastern flank of Allenby's offensive against Damascus. With the assistance of RAF aircraft summoned by Lawrence, the Arabs created considerable mischief. As the Turkish army fell back in disorder, tribal detachments snatched at the opportunity for random plunder and to revenge themselves on their old rulers by murdering prisoners of war. Lawrence would later excuse their crimes as vengeance, but, aware of the harm that their atrocities would do to the Arab cause, he endeavoured to restore discipline.

Arab outrages were a tiresome distraction for Lawrence, who knew that the moment was right for an Arab coup de main in Damascus. If the city fell to Arab forces he imagined its possession might immeasurably help their post-war political pretensions in Syria. He therefore did all in his power to steal a march on the British and dominion units that were converging on the city, which he finally reached, driven in a Rolls-Royce and escorted by Indian lancers, on 1 October (TNA: PRO, CAB 45/80, Major G. White to Sir James Edmonds).

Damascus had fallen to Australian cavalry a few hours before. The hastily formed makeshift Arab administration was unable to prevent the anarchy which Lawrence vividly described in Seven Pillars. On 2 October the city was occupied by allied units who swiftly restored order. When Allenby arrived, he made it plain that for the moment the terms of the Sykes–Picot agreement would hold, and that Feisal would have to accept French administrative supervision. Lawrence vainly protested that the Arabs had never been made aware of these arrangements. He was overruled and at Allenby's suggestion went home for some leave with the rank of full colonel.

Lawrence had not misled the Arabs, although he later wrote in Seven Pillars that he had worn a 'mantle of fraud' throughout the campaign. He had never been a plenipotentiary. The Arab leadership knew from the Anglophobe Egyptian press and Soviet Russia's revelations of secret allied diplomacy in December 1917 that the allies had agreed to partition the Turkish empire. None the less Lawrence continued to feel a burden of shame in having been an accomplice to what he believed to have been a cynical betrayal of the Arabs.

This largely self-induced conviction that he had acted dishonestly added to the immense physical strain Lawrence had suffered during two years of almost uninterrupted campaigning in extremes of heat and cold and often in considerable danger. His appearance and actions before, during, and after the taking of Damascus indicated severe battle fatigue. In a sense, Lawrence had been engaged in a war on two fronts: one as a commander in the field against the Turks and the other as the advocate of the Arabs in Cairo. The first contest had ended in victory, in so far as the Turkish empire had been defeated. The second had yet to be concluded, nor could it be, so long as the Arabs were denied what Lawrence believed to be their just reward: self-determination. This would not, it must be added, pose any threat to British strategic and imperial interests, for he was certain the new Arab states would flourish only within the imperial orbit.

Diplomat, 1919–1922

Two concerns exercised Lawrence's mind and energies during the immediate post-war years: his struggle to secure justice for the Arabs and writing a book about his and their war. In both he was greatly assisted by the fact that he became a public celebrity who gained entry to and circulated among the élites which dominated British politics and literature. Details of his exploits, withheld for security reasons during the war, became general knowledge during 1919 and aroused considerable interest and admiration. For the rest of his life he was a figure who exerted a powerful hold over the public imagination, a condition he often found uncongenial.

Lawrence's apotheosis and the genesis of what became his ‘legend’ began in August 1919, when the American journalist Lowell Thomas presented 'With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia' at the Royal Opera House, London, where it ran for six months. It was a spectacular and compelling mélange of Thomas's colourful narrative, music, slides, and film of scenes at 'Aqabah. Thomas had picked up the outline of Lawrence's story when he had briefly covered operations at 'Aqabah at the suggestion of John Buchan of the Ministry of Information. The upshot was the romantic and exciting tale of 'The Uncrowned King of Arabia' (Thomas's phrase) and an upsurge of public interest in the man who would become the most interesting figure to emerge from the war. Lawrence was embarrassed by Thomas's hyperbole, but the publicity it generated was useful at a time when Lawrence was lobbying for the Arab cause.

In 1919 and at the suggestion of the Foreign Office, Lawrence had attended the Versailles Conference as Feisal's adviser and translator. The Middle East was of secondary importance and Arab claims to Syria were stiffly opposed by Clemenceau. In May, Lawrence was flown back to Cairo to take command of an armoured unit which was in readiness to help Hussein resist an invasion of Hejaz by Ibn Sa'ud. Lawrence was injured in a plane crash and did not carry out the mission. By August he was back in England where he was demobilized and was soon afterwards elected to a fellowship of All Souls. For the rest of the year and most of the next he concentrated on his writing.

The years 1919–20 witnessed an imperial crisis with nationalist uprisings in Ireland, Egypt, India, and Iraq. Feisal was evicted from Syria by a French army. Lawrence blamed the Middle East's instability on the government, which had frustrated the legitimate ambitions of the Arabs, and he conducted a vigorous press campaign on their behalf. In a letter to The Times published on 23 July 1920 he pertinently asked whether those Arabs who had fought alongside the allies had merely done so to exchange one unloved imperial government for another. He added that the Anglo-Indian regime in Iraq enjoyed a worse reputation than its Ottoman predecessor.

In December, Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, invited Lawrence to join the new Middle East department and use his knowledge and local contacts to prepare the ground for a permanent settlement in the area. It was achieved in March 1921 at the Cairo conference which Lawrence attended: Feisal was offered the throne of Iraq and his brother, Abdullah, that of the Transjordan. Both were mandates and, rather like Indian princes, both rulers had British-officered armies. Palestine was also administered under a League of Nations mandate and, his early reservations withdrawn, Lawrence warmly supported Jewish immigration. A liberal imperialist, Lawrence believed that the Arab states were bound to follow India's path towards self-government, perhaps becoming Britain's first ‘brown dominion’.

Lawrence endorsed the scheme to use RAF bomber and armoured car squadrons as a substitute for the customary army garrisons. Together with Sir Hugh Trenchard, Lawrence was a godfather of the controversial system of aerial policing which was employed across the Middle East until the 1950s. Looking back Lawrence believed that he had settled a debt of honour and had achieved an equitable dispensation of power that was in the best interests of the empire and his former brothers-in-arms. His spent the next fourteen months negotiating with the increasingly cantankerous Hussein in Hejaz and advising Abdullah in the Transjordan. He found both tasks tedious.

Ranker and author, 1922–1935

In July 1922 Lawrence resigned from the Colonial Office and the following month enlisted in the RAF as John Hume Ross. According to the recruiting officer, W. E. Johns, his acceptance had been sanctioned at the highest level. In December, while attached to the RAF School of Photography at Farnborough, his subterfuge was uncovered by the press. He was discharged and re-enlisted in another technical unit, the tank corps, in March 1923 as T. E. Shaw. Just over two years later and after threatening suicide he was permitted to transfer to his preferred service, the RAF, where he remained until February 1935. At each stage in these proceedings, he was helped by well-placed connections including friends and admirers, John Buchan and George Bernard Shaw, who exerted pressure on the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin.

Lawrence's motives for enlistment were complex. He had a genuine interest in machinery—this was the period which saw his love affair with Brough Superior motorcycles—and between 1929 and 1935 he worked on the development of seaplane tenders and air–sea rescue craft. Lawrence also once expressed the hope that, having led from above, he could lead from below in a service which had captured his imagination during the war. The RAF also provided him with a relatively secure refuge from the intrusions of the press. These in the form of a bogus story about his involvement in covert intelligence gathering on the north-west frontier triggered his recall from Miramshah in 1929. The incident later formed the scenario for a Soviet propaganda film.

Since at least 1923 Lawrence had submitted to a bizarre and potentially scandalous regime of ritual beatings, undertaken by various men and at the instructions of an invented uncle who demanded his nephew's chastisement for various peccadilloes. There was a sexual element in these proceedings, although Lawrence's younger brother, Arnold Lawrence, claimed that they were therapeutic and the equivalent of the disciplinary beatings undergone by medieval ascetics. There were homoerotic passages in Seven Pillars and, soon after the war, at least one of his brother officers accused him of being a homosexual (James, 255). Rumours of this nature were so persistent that Lowell Thomas took the extraordinary step of denouncing them in a posthumous volume of tributes compiled by Lawrence's friends. Lawrence himself denied any such inclinations to E. M. Forster.

Service life, and his Dorset cottage retreat, Clouds Hill (purchased in 1924), gave Lawrence the time to write. By November 1919 he had completed the first draft of Seven Pillars, which he lost on Reading Station. A second was finished during 1922 which, with amendments and alterations, appeared as a private edition in 1926. Elegantly printed and richly illustrated by artists chosen by Lawrence, it was a reflection of his delight in fine printing. An abridged version, Revolt in the Desert, was published in 1927. Observations of life among his fellow aircraftmen formed the raw material for The Mint, a brutal but faithful record which Lawrence completed in 1927 and which appeared in a bowdlerized version in 1955. In 1932 Lawrence's translation of Homer's Odyssey was published.

At every stage of his writing career Lawrence was anxious about his felicity of expression and sought his friends' advice; his lack of confidence was utterly groundless. His friends were aware of and, by and large, tolerated his ambivalent attitude towards his own celebrity, neatly summed up by Trenchard: 'He was the sort of man who, on entering a roomful of people, would have contrived to be sick … had not everyone stood up to applaud him'. If recognition had not been immediately forthcoming, 'Lawrence might well react by standing on his head' (Boyle, 428). A charming, agreeable, though occasionally acerbic, manner compensated for the egotism.

Lawrence was deeply concerned with posterity. His revelatory letters, particularly to Mrs Charlotte Shaw, were certainly the raw material for future biographers. He also wrote to his living biographers, Robert Graves and Basil Liddell Hart, and through them became an accessory in the making of his own legend. Both augmented the heroics of Lowell Thomas's With Lawrence in Arabia (1924) and its sequel, The Boys' Life of Colonel Lawrence (1927). All these biographies sold well, evidence of the extent and endurance of Lawrence's appeal to the inter-war generation.

Lawrence fulfilled a special need: he was a hero in the pre-war mould (there were comparisons with General Gordon) and a brave man who, like so many other veterans, had been inwardly and outwardly scarred by their experiences. He was an amateur who did well in a conflict in which the professionals had blundered and his war had a romance and glamour which were lacking in the mass struggle of men against machines, chemicals, and mud. Lawrence was photogenic, an ideal icon of a lost generation, but also very much a modern man, as his passion for flight proved. Intellectuals could admire an unconventional man of their stamp and, in the early thirties, looked to him for some kind of leadership in the imminent struggle of political ideologies, as briefly did Auden and Isherwood. That they, along with Thomas Hardy, Winston Churchill, Lady Astor, and George Bernard Shaw were among his admirers is some indication of the universality of Lawrence's appeal. 'Such men win friends—such also find critics and detractors' observed Allenby in his obituary broadcast (The Listener, 22 May 1935). Among the latter were soldiers who objected to Lawrence's cocksure and sometimes insubordinate manner and to the way in which he had underplayed the part by the regular forces which had won the decisive victories.

There were also those, including his friends, who raised their eyebrows at some of Lawrence's tales. Among these was an account of how he had interrogated Mustafa Kemal (Kemal Atatürk) after he had been taken by Arabs in the closing days of the Damascus campaign. Sensing from his conversation that Kemal might prove a friend to the Arabs, Lawrence let him go. No one, including Kemal, ever referred to this encounter and, given Lawrence's observations on the Arabs' vengeful mood, it passed belief that a Turkish general could have survived capture (Wilson, 558, 1104–5). Nor could anyone corroborate Lawrence's undergraduate tales of exchanging shots with a Turkish brigand or his account of his capture and imprisonment by Turks near Urfa, where, disguised as an Arab, he had been seeking antiquities in 1912. This yarn was circulating in 1917 and was related by Lawrence to Liddell Hart (T. E. Lawrence to his Biographers Robert Graves and Liddell Hart, 2.141).

Lawrence's unsubstantiated and far-fetched tales were hostages to fortune, in so far that they threw into question his attitude to the truth. For him it was an artist's raw material which he could embellish for effect in the manner of his beloved troubadours. An undergraduate who once expressed a disdain for historical facts did not allow them to constrain his creativity; Lawrence's ornamentation of the truth was the exercise of artistic licence. He perplexed rather then deceived and, as his distant kinsman, Lord Vansittart, commented, he may have been a 'show-off', but 'he had something to show' (Daily Telegraph, 12 Feb 1955).

Lawrence could never distance himself from the alluring persona of Lawrence of Arabia (which put him on a par with Clive of India) although he often hoped he might, once expressing sympathy with that other celebrity who sought privacy, Greta Garbo. In 1935 he left the RAF and turned to a life of reading, writing, and printing fine books. On 13 May, swerving on his powerful motorcycle to avoid two boys cycling abreast, he was violently thrown, and after lingering unconscious for five days, Lawrence died in Bovington Camp Hospital on 19 May 1935. The obituaries were fulsome and reflected a sense of national loss which was genuine. The word 'enigma' was widely used. There were rumours that Lawrence had not died, but had withdrawn into an Arthurian limbo from which he would emerge to assist an imperilled nation. There had been similar tales after Kitchener's death.

Reputation

The private Lawrence was buried on 21 May 1935 in St Nicholas's churchyard, Moreton, Dorset; the public was commemorated by a bronze bust by Eric Kennington in the crypt of St Paul's, where Nelson was buried. The juxtaposition seemed appropriate: both were heroes who were adulated in life and death as exemplars of peculiar national virtues. And each was extraordinarily vain. No equivalent of Southey's Life of Nelson appeared after Lawrence's death to lend permanence to his legend and teach his countrymen how they ought to behave. Such a biography was unnecessary: the unabridged Seven Pillars was published within a few months. It soon became an international best-seller and has rarely been out of print in the English speaking world.

What turned out to be the custodianship of the ‘Lawrence legend’ was given to his youngest brother and literary executor, Arnold Lawrence, an archaeologist. It was a hard task: he had to balance the almost obsessive interest in his brother with a natural desire to keep secret details of his birth (their mother died in 1959 aged ninety-eight).

What became the prolific Lawrentian literary heritage began with various short inspirational biographies, the publication of a series of often sharply drawn and candid portraits by his friends and brothers-in-arms (T. E. Lawrence by his Friends, ed. A. W. Lawrence, 1937, and a selection of his correspondence, The Letters of T. E. Lawrence, ed. D. Garnett, 1938). Plans by Alexander Korda to produce a film based on Lawrence's desert exploits had been made shortly before his death, although he was uneasy about the enterprise. The project proceeded, but was scuppered by the Foreign Office, which was nervous about the film's effect on Anglo-Turkish relations. Korda persisted and in its final wartime version the scenario revealingly concentrated on Lawrence's work with the RAF and portrayed him as one of the progenitors of the force that would win the battle of Britain. The film was never made.

The favourable public image of Lawrence was radically transformed by Richard Aldington's Lawrence of Arabia: a Biographical Enquiry, which was published early in 1955. Aldington began his researches with an open mind, but as he trawled through the available sources he found abundant evidence of contradictions, inconsistencies, and fabrications. This convinced him that his subject was a consummate deceiver who had fabricated his own legend with Lowell Thomas, Robert Graves, and Basil Liddell Hart as his chief accomplices. The result was an excoriating biography which treated Lawrence as a boastful charlatan. Forewarned, and aware that his own as well as Lawrence's reputation was on the line, Liddell Hart mounted a distasteful campaign of vilification against Aldington in an attempt to rebut his charges (Crawford, especially 66–90).

In a bad-tempered debate, Lawrence's defenders insisted that Aldington was not only traducing a national hero, but the values he and his generation had stood for. These soon came under a more sustained barrage as Britain dismantled its empire and, in the process, repudiated its architects and their beliefs. Aldington was a step ahead of his times when he dismissed Lawrence as a hero of his class and age.

The literary offensive against Aldington proved self-defeating because Liddell Hart and his supporters cavilled over Aldington's errors, rather than concentrating on his shaky thesis that because Lawrence sometimes told lies he did so always. During the altercation Aldington received the public endorsement of some of Lawrence's wartime colleagues who recalled his presumptuousness and how he exaggerated his own and the Arabs' achievements (James, 442–3).

Aldington's unrelenting waspishness distorted his picture of Lawrence, who, despite his self-promotion, had been a fundamentally decent man. By debunking Lawrence, Aldington prepared the way for his being given the same treatment as any other prominent historical figure who had left behind an extensive record of his part in great events. Aldington's iconoclasm also replaced the hitherto one-dimensional paladin with an infinitely more intriguing creature who was flawed and driven by complex motives. These were evident in Terence Rattigan's Ross (1960), which Arnold Lawrence tried to ban, and David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Immensely popular, this magnificent epic was the apotheosis of the legend of Lawrence the heroic adventurer, brave, flamboyant, and disturbed by spasms of self-doubt. The inner frailties of the screen Lawrence added to his attractiveness without diminishing his accomplishments. Lean had done for Lawrence what Shakespeare had for Henry V. The film revived the Lawrence legend and guaranteed future interest in him as an individual.

The historical Lawrence underwent fresh dissection. His role as an agent of British imperial expansion was examined in S. Mousa's T. E. Lawrence: an Arab View (1966), which rejected some of the claims made in Seven Pillars. The opening of Foreign and War Office files in the 1960s and the exposure by the Sunday Times of Lawrence's masochistic beatings in 1968 kept him in the public eye and opened up a new field for conjecture, his sexuality. This was among the subjects examined by J. E. Mack. A psychiatrist, he approached Lawrence from a new angle by endeavouring to unravel the strands of his neuroses. Analysed in absentia, Lawrence revealed interior struggles which Mack believed were common to twentieth-century man (A Prince of our Disorder: the Life of T. E. Lawrence, 1976).

Lawrence's subsequent biographers (there have been five since 1979, and two respectful television documentaries) have been split into two factions. One has upheld his integrity and attempted to rescue him from allegations of egotistic misrepresentation. The other has followed Aldington and treated whatever Lawrence said with varying degrees of scepticism. Both approaches rest on the fragile premise that public figures were models of rectitude, objectivity, and accuracy whenever they wrote about themselves and assessed their achievements.

The sixty or more years after Lawrence's death witnessed the fulfilment of his ambition to fascinate and bewilder posterity. How far this conditioned his behaviour during his lifetime cannot be known. What is beyond doubt is that even after his flaws had been exposed, his capacity to grip the public imagination remained as strong as ever.

Sources

  • correspondence for the official history of the E. E. F.'s 1917–18 campaigns, TNA: PRO, CAB 45/80
  • R. Aldington, Lawrence of Arabia: a biographical enquiry (1955)
  • R. C. Busch, Britain, India and the Arabs, 1914–21 (Berkeley, California, 1971)
  • A. J. Hill, Chawel of the light horse (Melbourne, 1978)
  • T. E. Lawrence, The seven pillars of wisdom (1986)
  • The letters of T. E. Lawrence, ed. M. Brown (1988)
  • S. Mousa, T. E. Lawrence and the Arabs (1967)
  • L. James, The golden warrior: the life and legend of Lawrence of Arabia, rev. edn (1995)
  • J. Wilson, Lawrence of Arabia (1989)
  • M. R. Lawrence, ed., The home letters of T. E. Lawrence and his brothers (1954)
  • Bodl. Oxf., MSS Milner 53–54, 452
  • Selected letters of T. E. Lawrence, ed. D. Garnett (1938)
  • C. Falls, Armageddon, 1918 (1964)
  • S. Mousa, ‘Arab sources on Lawrence of Arabia: new evidence’, Army Quarterly and Defence Journal, 116 (1986), 167
  • Wingate papers, U. Durham L., Sudan archive
  • King's Lond., Edmonds MSS
  • G. W. Barrow, The fire of life (1941)
  • A. Boyle, Trenchard: man of vision (1962), 428
  • The Listener (22 May 1935)
  • T. E. Lawrence to his biographers Robert Graves and Liddell Hart (1963)
  • Daily Telegraph (12 Feb 1955)
  • A. W. Lawrence, ed., T. E. Lawrence by his friends (1937)
  • F. D. Crawford, A cautionary tale: Richard Aldington and Lawrence of Arabia (1998)
  • J. E. Mack, A prince of our disorder: the life of T. E. Lawrence (1976)

Archives

  • BL, annotated and corrected copy of Seven pillars of wisdom
  • BL, diaries and literary papers, Add. MSS 45912–45917, 45930, 45983, 46355
  • BL, corresp. and papers, Add. MSS 63549–63550
  • Bodl. Oxf., commonplace book
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp., literary MSS, papers, and personal papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., papers, MS RES.C.54
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to his mother [copies]
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., corresp., literary MSS, and papers
  • IWM, notes relating to campaign in Hedjaz
  • Jesus College, Oxford, corresp. and papers
  • Ransom HRC, corresp. and papers
  • All Souls Oxf., letters to Lionel Curtis
  • BL, letters to C. F. Bell, Add. MSS 63549–63550
  • BL, corresp. with Charlotte Shaw, Add. MSS 56495–56499 [copies]
  • BL, corresp. with George Bernard Shaw, Add. MSS 45903–45904, 45916, 45922
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to A. E. Chambers
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lionel Curtis
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Geoffrey Dawson
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to E. T. Leeds
  • CAC Cam., corresp. with George Lloyd
  • CAC Cam., corresp. with Lady Spencer-Churchill
  • CUL, letters to Lady Kennet
  • Gon. & Caius Cam., letters to Charles Doughty
  • Jesus College, Oxford, letters to R. V. Buxton
  • Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, corresp. with H. S. Ede
  • King's AC Cam., corresp. with E. M. Forster
  • Mitchell L., NSW, letters to Frederic Manning
  • NA Scot., corresp. with marquess of Lothian
  • NL Scot., letters to John Buchan [copies]
  • Palestine Exploration Fund, London, corresp. with Palestine Exploration Fund
  • Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, department of research and information services, letters to A. S. Frere-Reeves
  • TNA: PRO, intelligence reports/summaries (Middle East), WO
  • TNA: PRO, Jidda consulate/Arab bureau, FO 686, FO 882
  • U. Durham L., Clayton papers
  • U. Durham L., Wingate papers
  • U. Lond., Allenby papers
  • U. Reading L., corresp. with Nancy Astor
  • University of Essex, letters to Harold Stanley Ede

Film

  • BFINA, ‘T. E. Lawrence, 1880–1935’, BBC, 1962
  • BFINA, True stories, Channel 4, 29 July 1997
  • BFINA, documentary footage
  • BFINA, news footage
  • BFINA, record footage
  • IWM, news footage, [Allenby's entry into Jerusalem, Dec 1917]

Sound

  • BL NSA, ‘Personal recollections of T. E. Lawrence in the Near East during the 1914–1918 war’, 19 May 1935, 1CLD067793 S1
  • BL NSA, ‘T. E. Lawrence and the media’, 6 Nov 1985, C125/49 BD1

Likenesses

  • B. E. Leeson, bromide print, 1917, NPG
  • photograph, 1917, IWM
  • R. G. Goslett, photograph, 1917–1918, IWM
  • photograph, 1917–1918, NPG
  • J. McBey, oils, 1918, IWM
  • A. John, drawing, 1919, All Souls Oxf.
  • A. John, oils, 1919, Tate collection [see illus.]
  • A. John, oils, 1919, Yale CBA
  • A. John, pencil drawing, 1919, NPG
  • W. Rothenstein, portrait, 1919, National Museum, Belgrade
  • F. D. Wood, plaster head, 1919, IWM; bronze cast, Tate collection
  • W. Roberts, oils, 1922–3, AM Oxf.
  • photograph, 1925–6, Bodl. Oxf.
  • E. Kennington, bronze head, 1926, NPG; also in Clouds Hill, Dorset
  • E. Kennington, pastel drawing, 1926, U. Texas
  • three photographs, 1926–1928, NPG
  • A. John, chalk drawing, 1929, NPG
  • A. John, oils, 1929, AM Oxf.
  • A. John, pencil drawing, 1929, NPG
  • C. Wheeler, marble head, 1929, NPG
  • photograph, 1929, NPG
  • H. Coster, photographs, 1931, NPG
  • A. John, drawing, chalk, 1935, AM Oxf.
  • A. John, portrait, 1935, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
  • E. Kennington, stone effigy, 1939, St Martin's Church, Wareham, Dorset
  • H. Gurschner, oils (posthumous), NG Ire.
  • H. S. Tuke, oils, Clouds Hill, Dorset
  • photograph, NPG
  • photographs, Hult. Arch.

Wealth at Death

£7441 9s.: probate, 26 Aug 1935, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Bodleian Library, Oxford
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
University of Durham Library, department of palaeography and diplomatic
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
King's College, Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, London